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Spring 2004
Diversity, Economics and Education
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Heavily multicultural school districts like those in Los Angeles County are feeling the impact. In the sprawling, 746,800-student Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), for example, at least 92 different native languages are spoken. There are more than half-a-million students who are more fluent in Spanish than in English, nearly 12,000 who speak primarily Armenian and another 47,000 or so who speak Korean, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Mandarin, Tagalog, Japanese, Arabic, Russian, Persian, Thai or Urdu. There were even six students in the 2000 school year whose native tongue was Khmu, an unwritten language from northern Laos.

Historically, immigration and the idea of the melting pot have been responsible for the success of this country. It has been the driving force behind our economic, scientific and technological innovation, arts and culture, and even our democratic institutions. But historically, it also has presented problems — racism, discrimination, displacement of existing communities, undercutting wages and a lot of just plain miscommunication — and it costs money.

Jeannie Oakes Ph.D. '80, UCLA's Presidential Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, suggests that today's multicultural population growth and its impact on the schools is analogous to what was experienced in the 1950s, when the baby boomers started flooding into California schools.

"People were dazzled by the challenge, but the state swung into gear, built schools fast, believed education was important, had confidence in the new generation, trained new teachers and by the 1960s had all sorts of programs in place," she says. "We pulled out all the stops and created something wonderful that led to a pretty well-educated generation."

She doesn't see it as being so different today.

"The issues and challenges [raised by the diverse nature of the state's population growth] are not exactly the same as we had before," Oakes says. "But we can turn it around and say that in California, more than anywhere else in the U.S., we have the potential for creating a truly bilingual, globally oriented, educated population. That is one of the things this country and the world needs most."

Rosa Furumoto Ed.D. '01, a graduate of UCLA's Educational Leadership Program and a professor of Chicano studies at California State University, Northridge, would agree.

"Schools just reflect society," she says. Classroom diversity can be a tremendous educational opportunity for schools with appropriate resources. Or it can be the source of terrible headaches for schools that don't have those resources.

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